The Reading Room, an ex-village Hall in Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, was built in 1906 by Willian Arthur Smith Benson. Benson was a high-profile lighting designer and a key part of the Arts and Crafts movement, selling his work through (William) Morris & Co in London. Having settled in Manorbier in middle age, he built the Reading Room as a philanthropic gesture to the community.
Kathryn Campbell Dodd’s exhibition reflects on the Arts and Crafts heritage of the building to both celebrate and question the utopian idealism of the movement’s philosophies through a series of new and recent works.
The exhibition title, Every ornament should have its perfume is taken from Owen Jones’ seminal book, The Grammar of Ornament published in 1856 which contributed to reforms in British design and the Arts & Crafts ideals of utility, beauty and fitness for purpose.
Making reference to the textile and wall paper designs of William Morris and the lighting designs of WAS Benson, the new works presented in the beautifully designed and now refurbished Reading Room space are constructed from low grade printed textiles (such as floral duvets covers) and cardboard.
The use of these materials reflects upon the aspirations of the Arts & Crafts movement’s socialist idealism and the belief that political and social change can be wrought through the hand-made or speciatist production of craft, art and design. The desire to challenge capitalism, globalization and the mass production of consumer goods through a return to the handmade, the wholesome and the rustic is a natural and deeply human response – as relevant today as in Morris and Benson’s time. Arguably, the built-in failure of those utopian aspirations however aesthetically and materially seductive is rooted in the problems inherent in taking such goods to market, where disposable income is essential to be able to afford to buy them.
The work on show celebrates and cherishes the desire for change through art and making whilst recognizing and embracing the inadequacy of that position. It acknowledges the intense labour involved in making by hand and, in this instance, the uselessness of the practical product it produces. Low-grade materials and decorator’s paints, beautiful textiles that cannot be used in the home or washed; cardboard from consumer packaging which stands in for the high-quality metals and glass of lighting fixtures.
Morris himself recognized the dilemma and proposed a positive rallying cry for those of us that proceed him “…how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”*
• P20, Introduction, William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs, edited by Asa Briggs, pulished by Penguin Books 1962